One Size Doesn't Fit All

Today, we visited Go! Atheneum Gentbrugge, and I was more inspired by a group of students than I have been in a long time.

Atheneum is a secondary school in a suburb of Ghent, and is in some ways equivalent to a US high school. One of the more striking differences, to me at least, between the US and Flemish education systems is the way secondary education is organized. Rather than high schools being place-bound, they are instead driven by mission. Some schools prepare students for the university while others prepare students for professional bachelor programs and others train students to enter the workforce. Students choose their secondary school based not on their postal code but on their long-term goals.

The primary purpose of this system, it seems, is to sort students in an efficient way in order to help them all make the most out of their educations. Those who are inclined toward trades and vocations can learn everything they need to know to enter the workforce during their secondary education experience (generally between ages 12 and 18). Those who want to enter professions like teaching and nursing will generally attend secondary schools that prepare them for admission to a university college (like Artevelde University College we visited a couple of days ago). And finally, those headed to a university will work toward a secondary education that will prepare them to seek out an academic bachelor's degree at a university.

Most of the students at Atheneum are destined for the university. The things they study at the school make it rather obvious that they are being groomed for advanced education. Along with two of my colleagues, I had an opportunity to spend a couple of hours with Maya and Darcy, two students at the school, and I was incredibly inspired. Both were studying multiple languages, and their English was better than a lot of native speakers. They spoke about the variety of educational opportunities available to them, the community they have at school, and the way they work together to be sure that their peers do not fall behind. It seemed, in so many ways, like the opposite of what happens at many US high schools.

When we arrived at the school, the students were outside for their lunch break, and the first thing I noticed is that they were talking to one another. I'm so accustomed to seeing students with their noses stuck in their phones that the absence of phones was striking. I later learned that the school does not have wifi internet, and that they have not been able to provide as much technological infrastructure as they would like. Perhaps this is why their students still seem a bit old-fashioned in that they aren't too engrossed in their phones to socialize face to face. I'm not sure this is a bad thing since I have always been skeptical that more and more technology is the solution to our educational woes. I don't allow cell phones or laptops in my own classrooms except in exceptional circumstances, so it would be silly of me to criticize Flemish secondary schools for lacking wireless internet. I'd much prefer social engagement, and I saw it happening at Atheneum.

Perhaps the root of the tight-knit community I experienced at Atheneum is that the students there largely have the same life goals. They aren't lumped together by virtue of where they live, but, rather, by virtue of where they hope to go after secondary school. Students with common passions and goals, it seems, are infinitely better suited to study and learn together than those whose life goals are so different as to potentially never intersect.

As I think through the Flemish secondary education system, I am faced with an uncomfortable reality. Because students can enroll in any secondary school they want in most cases, they have what sort of resembles a free secondary education market. Students at Atheneum were from a number of communities. Some take the bus in from central Ghent while others are from surrounding suburbs. It would, in theory, even be possible for students from Ghent to take the train every day to attend school in Antwerp or Brussels. They get to choose. If they initially choose a school like Atheneum and struggle academically, they can transition to a different school. In fact, because schools like Atheneum prepare students for the university, students who cannot keep up academically are sometimes forced to transfer to other schools more closely matched to their intellectual abilities. As I said, the goal is to efficiently prepare students for what happens after secondary school, and this system carefully considers both student desires and intellectual realities.

In principle, I'm completely and totally opposed to the idea of charter schools and taxpayer-funded private school vouchers. I have always believed that the best solution is to properly fund local public schools rather than fund private competitors and bleed the public schools dry. However, in the Flemish system, I see a structure that allows free choice while simultaneously serving students incredibly well. I suppose this is different than the way "school choice" has evolved in the US since the goal of so-called free-market education in the US has often been to accomplish conservative anti-government goals. Those who are screaming about free market education in the US are not likely to agree to funding education at the level the Flemish do. If school choice in the US meant the same thing that it does in Belgium, I might be in favor of it. However, the primary difference is that, in Flanders at least, all secondary schools are fully and equally funded. And, of course, there's no such thing as for-profit schools in Belgium. This isn't what the school choice crowd in the US has in mind, so perhaps I don't need to be so uncomfortable with my love of the Flemish system even if it appears to embrace free market principles.

As has been the case every day of this trip, the bottom line seems to be one of funding. In the Netherlands and Belgium, citizens, via the government, make large investments in education. They pay high taxes with the expectation that the result will be free or low-cost high-quality education (and free healthcare, but that's a topic for another time). In Flanders, there's no cost for school between ages 2.5 and 18, and higher education is about a thousand Euros per year. In the Netherlands, they have similar primary and secondary systems, and higher education costs about two thousand Euros per year. This investment in education seems to be paying off. Mostly, it seems, they end up getting the high-quality education they demand. The Programme for International Assessment (PISA) indicates that students from both the Netherlands and Belgium score substantially higher than the US students in reading, math, and science. Though conservatives in the US refuse to accept it, it seems that education does in fact improve when it is properly funded.

I leave my experience at Atheneum inspired by the students I met and wondering how I can bring about change in my own community to be sure that our students have access to the same high-quality education. For me, it comes down to two things. First and foremost, I have to be willing to invest my own money, via taxes, in education. And second, we have to end the unfair and broken education funding system in the US that provides dollars to schools based on zip code. Only when there exists a level financial playing field across states and across the US can we have any hope of helping students have equal (or at least fairly distributed) educational outcomes.

I am not certain I have any hope at all that we will ever figure education funding out here in the US. As it is, the system is designed to keep poor districts poor and wealthy districts wealthy, and school districts remain segregated both socioeconomically and racially. Especially in the current anti-intellectual political climate, it is pretty clear that most of those in charge care little for education. They'd rather fund prisons or siphon off education funds to private school management corporations (I'm looking at you, Betsy DeVos). Since I have no reason to expect a political miracle in the US, all I can do is either hope to win the ZIP code school district lottery when we have children, or begin planning a move to Europe. Otherwise, who knows what kind of education our children will receive.

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© 2019 -  Joshua Wilkey - This Appalachian Life